Family 'stunned' by fatal crash as investigators reveal details of how it happened
The family of a man who stole a Horizon Air aircraft from Sea-Tac Airport and crashed it say they're "stunned and heartbroken" by his death.
Investigators and airline officials are piecing together information about how Richard "Beebo" Russell, 29, a Horizon employee, was able to take a Bombardier Q400 turboprop and fly for more than an hour before crashing into a small island in south Puget Sound.
They believe there were no passengers on board and no structures hit when the plane crashed into Ketron Island on Friday night.
Speaking at Sea-Tac Airport on Saturday morning, the officials stressed that the investigation was just getting started, with many questions still unanswered. But they gave some details about the unauthorized flight.
Investigators would not name the employee who took the plane, but in a statement read by a family friend on Saturday night, the family confirmed it was Russell, who was married and lived in Sumner, Washington.
"It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man," the statement said.
"As the voice recordings show, Beebo's intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him."
The recordings were of radio communication between Russell and air traffic controllers. At one point, Russell said, "I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them."
The family statement said they would not release any further statement. "At this time the family is moving forward with the difficult task of processing our grief."
Investigators confirmed Russell had worked for three and a half years at Horizon Air and was a ground service agent.
“He worked his shift yesterday. We believe he was in uniform,” said Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden. Horizon Air is a subsidiary of Alaska Air Group.
Tilden said the company runs background checks on their employees and that it was the job of the employee in question to be around aircraft.
“Airports have a non-secure side and a secure side. He’s meant to be on the secure side, that’s part of the fulfillment of his job responsibilities,” Tilden said.
Questions have been raised about how a plane can be stolen from a busy airport.
On Saturday, airline and Sea-Tac representatives said Russell, who identified himself as "Rich" to air traffic controllers, was fully credentialed and had access to the cargo area where the plane was.
Tilden said the system in place is to credential and secure employees and air fields, but not planes. Unlike cars, there are no keys needed for the door or to turn on the plane, he said.
Watch the press conference with officials from Alaska Airline, Horizon Air, and the FBI
“Credentialed employees are there to work on the airplanes. That’s their job, to be around these airplanes and to work on them,” Tilden said. “In terms of improvements that we might make as a company and as an industry to make this very safe industry even safer in the future, it’s too early to say."
Officials said the stolen turboprop was in the north part of the airport and was not scheduled for flights last night. Russell used a push-back tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees before getting in and taxiing the aircraft.
Normal clearances – ramp, ground and take-off – did not happen.
Investigators said they don’t believe Russell had a pilot’s license and they’re unsure how he was able to fly the way he did. In one video shot by a witness on the ground, a man can be heard exclaiming that the pilot "just did a loop-the-loop."
The FBI is leading investigations into the incident and special agent Jay Tabb said there are dozens of people at the crash site working to find answers.
“I had 30 to 40 folks involved overnight, out interviewing co-workers and family members, and I just want everybody to understand that this is going to take a little bit of time," Tabb said. "So please be patient with the FBI.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact one of these resources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline800-273-8255 Hotline available 24/7. Online chat also available. Crisis Text Line741741 Text from anywhere in the U.S. with a trained crisis counselor. Available 24/7. Forefront Suicide Prevention (UW) Information, training, and resources. Not a crisis line.